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New Scientist Scientific Talent 2015: Interview with Marieke Liem

The magazine New Scientist selected 25 nominees from candidates proposed by all Dutch and Belgian universities for the New Scientist Science talent 2015 election. One of these nominees is dr. Marieke Liem, who works at the Centre for Terrorism & Counterterrorism.

Marieke Liem studied criminology at Cambridge University and was awarded a PhD cum laude in 2010  in forensic psychology for her thesis 'homicide followed by suicide '. Her thesis received the William Nagel Prize for best dissertation in Criminology. She continued research at Harvard University and has worked at Leiden University since 2010  - first at the Faculty of Law and since 2015 at Faculty Campus The  Hague. She is the Chair of the European Homicide Research Group.

Her research focuses on lethal violence within the family, homicides followed by suicide and homicides with a significant social impact. She examines at the effects of (long-term) imprisonment on murderers, and unravels who the people are behind the crimes. Because homicide is a misunderstood, sensationalized offense, she tries to scientifically explain this sensitive issue, also in the national media.

You are nominated to become the New Scientist scientific talent of 2015. Were you suprised at the nomination?

Yes. When I think of science awards, I think of hard beta science such as quantum mechanics. I did not expect there to be also social scientists on the nomination list. Ultimately, I am delighted that research is more in the spotlight. I find that to be more important than the researchers themselves.

I also think that one of the goals of the New Scientist is to give more societal relevance to research that is scientifically already very relevant. The crazy thing is that in my case, this is precisely the other way around. The social relevance is already quite high while the scientific basis is still scarce. We still know too little about it..

Would you like to tell us more about your research?

My research focuses on serious violence, such as homicide. If you look at trends, we now life in a safer world compared to 5, 10 or maybe even 500 years ago. I examine how that has developed in a very general epidemiological way. Derived from that, you have specific types of homicide such as family homicides, child homicide and homicide followed by suicide. Adjacent topics are offences caused by seriously confused people. My research also focuses on the perpetrators. What happens to these individuals after the crime? They are punished, detained, and then? I have studied this first in the United States where people are sentenced to 30 to up to 40 years in prison and now I repeat my research in the Netherlands where people are sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison for a murder. How are these people coping after they finish their prison sentence? How did they experience that long-prison sentence? Do they change? Is prison a "school of crime ' or is it a place for transformation? Are they able to integrate again? To be a productive, participating member of society? And how does this compare to people who have spent a much shorter sentence? Can we understand, when someone has committed a very serious offence, how it affects the rest of his life?

 I try to link this research to a policy-side of this issue. How should we view all these long-term prisoners? Currently, there are more than 600 individuals in the Netherlands serving long-term sentences. More than 30 are serving a lifetime sentence. It so happens that currently, the same strategies apply to both the long-term and short-term prisoners. We should question the aim of such policies. Is it beneficial if prisoners, so to speak, pack scouring pads for 20 years on end, while society outside changes enormously? They lose contact with their spouse, children, friends and other family members. If you then are released, you have much less handles to rebuild your life. How do you build a meaningful, productive live if you have missed the digitization and have much less relevant work experience than competitors? Rehabilitation is also an important goal of punishment. If we want them to get a chance to make themselves useful for society  again and to live according to laws and regulations, we must give them the right opportunities.

A well-known question is whether long and harder punishments prevent crime. What is your view on this?

Indeed, it is thought that with harder punishment you issue a signal that behaviour of long term prisoners is not tolerated and thus deters criminals. There is, however, no conclusive evidence for that. It even seems that as you punish longer, you promote crime compared to shorter penalties and rehabilitation. Suppose someone gets a community service. That person can then maintain his relationship with his children, his employer need not to terminate the employment relationship and he can keep in touch with friends who do well. Conversely, if someone is imprisoned, all of that disappears. In terms of friendships, they may only consist of individuals you met in the prison yard. So the longer you incarcerate someone, the lower the likelihood that someone can integrate into the society. Try to explain during a job interview what you did, during a 5-year gap on your resume. This is also one of the questions I want to answer, what do you achieve with these longer sentences?    

Do you see already vast differences with America? how did you experience this?

I found it very interesting to work there and if you want to do research into longer sentences, then America is the perfect country to do it, as 1% of the population is behind bars. You would be able to fill an entire U.S.  State with prisoners. In this State 1 in 10 prisoners would be a long-term prisoner. On the one hand, this has to do with the fact that it is politically very attractive to give long sentences but on the other hand, this has also historical reasons. There remains a very sharp line between who is punished, and who is not, exactly where there are so-called ' racial biases'.

The prison system is also quite different. You could argue that the system is much more intrinsically than extrinsically; here you have no reward system for when such a transformation takes place. In the Netherlands you need not to present your transformation narrative before a Commission in order to be eligible for 'parole'. The incentives to change, reside much more within the person.

How do you experience the University and faculties is your work being well facilitated/supported?

Yes, most definitely. Everything is very new, everything is possible, there is much potential for growth; that potential is great and there really is a 'go get it ' mentality. In addition, here in The Hague, it is just a very fun environment . Although I live in Utrecht myself, also a beautiful city.

What excites you most in your work?

The most euphoric ... is that ' gotcha ' moment when you find a piece of data or a solution for  a puzzle that you have been wrestling with for a long time.  When you find something provable, then that is a fantastic 'eureka ' moment. I think you get the most satisfaction from the unravelling process.

And homicide is also an extreme crime, right? I think the extremity often deters people from looking any further. We do not know exactly how we well may indicate such crimes. When you go through numerous cases, you may be come up with an answer and come to a real 'gotcha '! That is the most satisfying feeling. I think that goes for most scientists.


New Scientist Scientific Talent 2015

The magazine New Scientist organizes a price for the greatest science talent 2015. With the brand  new New Scientist Scientific Talent election the popular science magazine wants to give young scientists the opportunity to highlight their research to a large audience.

Criteria to reach the Top 25 of the Science Magazine New Scientist, are among others the scientific and social impact of the research, originality and timeliness. The election will close on September 7. The opinion of the jury and the audience are taken equally into account in the final judgment.  The winner will be announced during a festive event on 24 September in the Amsterdam Pakhuis de Zwijger. You can vote here for Marieke Liem.



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